house martins

A wing and a prayer

It’s a time of winged things. Summer is taking flight and giving way to autumn. House martins are whirling through thundery air, stocking up on insects before their journey.

In the park, Finley, aged two, is swinging higher and higher – ‘I’m flying …’ Jago, five, is standing still staring at the ground where there is a seething mass of silver wings among the grass. The muggy humid weather has created perfect conditions for flying ants to hatch. The newly emerged young queens and males are spiralling up on sweet-wrapper wings to mate in mid-air. Afterwards the queen bites off her wings, which have served their purpose, and creates a new nest by digging into the soil. The males, having mated, die.

Finley blows the seeds of a dandelion – ‘two, three, six’ and hands me the bare stalk. We examine a stink bug (Coreus marginatus) which has landed on his jeans. A fly sits beside me on the picnic bench. The droning sound of bees blends with distant thunder. In the garden, borage and lavender are straggling everywhere, but I refuse to tidy up as the insects love these plants. Hoverflies, ladybirds, wasps and bees are pinned to every petal.

As we watch the shimmering wings of the ants disappearing into the shadows of the lime trees we hear a loud roaring sound and the Red Arrows fly over in formation. Later is the sad news of the Hawker Hunter crash at Shoreham.

Goodbye to Summer

Early morning and the sun shooting low, straight in my eyes like an inquisition. I couldn’t see where I was going so studied the ground, seeing for the first time, reflective specs in the white lines on the road. The low light revealed snail trails like invisible ink – a log of night-time journeys, written in loops and flourishes. Bird droppings studded with yellow seeds blotted the pavement. Overgrown brambles and nettles plucked at me on the narrow path.

On the river half a dozen young mallards had turned sideways against the current as they swam under the bridge – perhaps to slow themselves down. Petals of Himalayan Balsam lay flat on the surface of the water like purple hearts.

Along the lane where it borders the site of an ancient track I got my usual goose bumps. The sun dappled the road through the trees and the only sound was birdsong. Suddenly I heard approaching footsteps – a jogger going by. I looked over towards the old high track almost expecting to see someone. As I emerged from the shade my shadow sprang ahead and startled me.

I could hear sheep tearing at the grass. Low down in the hedges, convolvulus flowers were furled in the shade, but open trumpets in the sun. Higher up, was a collage of colour and texture. Berries of all hues and sizes hung against a green backdrop – deep purple elderberries, dusky wild damsons, red and orange honeysuckle berries, wild cherry plums and peppermint-white snowberries. In an alder tree were compact green cones like hand grenades about to explode.

Some plants made up for lack of colour with intricate patterns and shapes – propellers of sycamore, knobbly hog weed seeds like jacks ready to scatter, wads of thistledown on the wind and delicate drifts of dandelion seeds counting down the days to autumn.

At home about twenty house martins were swooping up, one after another, to a nest under the eaves then dipping away as though saying goodbye to summer.

Time and Distance

The sky was a pale faraway blue edged with surfy white clouds – the look it gets as autumn approaches and the sun steps back. House martins were gathering on the wires – separate black notes on a page of music.

I saw things from the corner of my eye – a clump of seeding thistles huddled in a field, tufty white heads nodding sagely, the ghost of an egret taking off from the stream, a scattering of young pheasants in the dry grass, a tortoiseshell butterfly incongruously perched on an alloy wheel, the sharp silvery leaves of the Carline thistle. It’s strange how things sometimes seem clearer sideways-on. Stars are seen best on the edge of vision.

On the coastal path at Abbotsbury plants, were anticipating autumn. The multi-coloured berries of nightshade hung in strigs over the pebbles, bristly ox-tongue was seeding vigorously and teasels revealing their exquisite architecture. Tamarisk bushes were flowering desperately, pink feathery flowers in disarray, looking as though they’d got up late, and almost missed the summer.

Along the verges, tall stems were silhouetted against the sky, each one topped with what looked like a carelessly packed parcel of black yoyos dangling spindly strings. These wild leeks (known as Babbington’s leeks) dominated the hedgerow.

Thought to have originated from prehistoric times, this is a perennial plant which grows well here – behind the beach, sheltered from the salty winds by the Chesil bank. Earlier in the summer lush strappy leaves surrounded pastel green stems, each with a globular flower head encased in a tissue-like membrane. In midsummer the membranes tear into little pixie hoods revealing a bunch of round bright green seeds from which grow small pinky-mauve flowers on thin stalks. Now the seeds were black as billiard balls, ready to roll.

On the shingle, sea pea extended thin green fingers, pointing towards the sea. Clumps of sea campion lay low, seed heads bobbing in the wind like tiny paper bags. A line of anglers marked the shoreline. Unfortunately their rubbish littered the strandline – a silvery shoal of polythene bags, bottles, cellophane and tinfoil barbeque trays.

From the corner of my eye I saw a strangely shaped pebble. It was a fossilised sea urchin, ground down and misshapen by sea and shingle. It seemed to squint at me from the distant past.

Fragments from a notebook

A busy rainless week with glimpses of the natural world from car windows and between social activities – moments like static photos among the hectic movements of an old film.

  •  A huge Meccano-like dragonfly whirring in to land on a bent reed – all angles and joints
  •  The electric blue of damsel flies – migraine flashes in the corner of your eye.
  •  A pond skater making walking-on-water look easy.
  •  A grey heron, so still it could have been a fibreglass decoy – statuesque among the bulrushes, prehistoric, in a time lapse of its own, fused to its reflection.
  •  A tiny newt stubbing fiercely at my finger, unexpectedly strong.
  •  A comma butterfly appliquéd to a path.
  •  A large spider in the attic window – I left him well alone.
  •  Clippings of sage, parsley and lavender – pungently drying in the sun.
  •  Young sparrows chattering incessantly in the bushes.
  •  A green woodpecker on grass in the glow of a red sunset.
  •  House martins spinning high in the evening air.
  •  The smell of sunburnt grass, honeysuckle and warm tarmac while walking home at 11pm.
  •  A full moon drenching the village in liquid light that flowed everywhere.



Up the Garden Path

Collared DoveNesting collared dove 1




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Gardens have sprung into life and are now busy places full of all sorts of surprises. In the last week I have visited several friends’ gardens and found great tits nesting in a sparrow flat, a pair of collared doves sitting on a nest behind a broken security light on the house wall and, in my own garden, some strange little golden spiders clustered on the shed door. When I moved in closer to photograph them they scattered like ball bearings. The next morning they had criss-crossed the open door with threads spangled with little golden dots. I did some research and found they were garden spiderlings. They cluster together after hatching but scatter if danger threatens.

Under a sheet of corrugated iron, a young slow worm was coiled like copper wire. By the pond was a small newt. I picked it up and it crossed my palm with its cold dainty fingers. Glossy red ladybirds choose the shiniest green leaves to display their colour, while  turquoise flies flash like tiny kingfishers amongst the foliage.

The wet weather has created snail and slug heaven. In the early morning snails slide over the fennel and make lace of the lupins – small stripy snails like humbugs, mellow yellow ones, large tawny garden snails and tiny brown whorls. I can’t bring myself to use slug pellets, even the wildlife friendly ones, just in case they harm the birds. Anyway, the snails themselves are beautiful so I’ll just have to put up with lacy lupins and holey hollyhocks.

Bees are immersing themselves in wells of nectar, becoming covered in bright yellow nuggets of pollen, their contented buzzing the soundtrack of summer days. House martins are wheeling around catching mayflies and other airborne bugs. The weather has been perfect for nest building with plenty of squidgy mud for plastering. A green woodpecker struts around in the long grass at the edge of the allotment enjoying the ants.

In a heathland garden, greater spotted woodpeckers – male, female and young – are visiting the bird feeder and scooting up the pine trees searching for bugs beneath the bark. An upside down nuthatch on the peanuts caused the great tits to wait nearby till it had finished feeding. The hierarchy on the bird table was interesting, small birds giving way to the larger ones and waiting patiently till the coast was clear. A rabbit was sitting upright in the field adjoining the garden, sun glowing through its ears.

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Floods and Flowers

Three months ago the countryside looked very different. The meadows had been under water for weeks. Herons and little egrets took over, inhabiting the liminal layer between rain and floodwater. They seemed to swim through the air half-fish half-bird. Clouds and sky were the same silvery-grey as the flooded fields, trees shape-shifting as gales mixed the air and water to a homogenous whole.

Dog walking was restricted to the lanes and, even here, streams had overflowed across the road, carrying stones, weeds and mud, depositing the debris in hieroglyphic patterns on the tarmac – a liquid language. The banks exuded a dense earthy smell and grass had been combed then left to dry in hanks on the sides of the lanes. Bridges had collapsed, drains were overflowing and sheep huddled in groups on small islands amongst the overspill.

Catkins had dropped and lay in brown shoals in puddles. Buds on the hedgerow stayed closed in defiance of the cold winds, leaving the branches stark against a backdrop of blue ruffled streams. I noticed an anglers’ hut had been built beside the river – a timber and thatch construction that looked like a Hansel and Gretel cottage. A fisherman in khaki oilskins stood motionless waiting for a tug on his line trailing in the water. Further upstream another fairytale shelter had sprung up with another angler attempting to blend with his surroundings. We walked on hoping for a kingfisher. As the river curved round the head of the meadow beneath arching willows, I saw a heron standing still on the edge of the water, outlined sharply as though etched against the background. The beak pointed skyward then downward, spearing the water before I had registered movement. Slowly it took off, a fish hanging from its beak.

It’s nearly the end of May and the world has changed out of all recognition. Now grass has replaced water, trees are cloaked in leaves and the roadsides are frothing with cow parsley, streaked with red campion, bluebells, buttercups and other spring flowers.  The cuckoo is singing non-stop and house martins are swooping over the thatch catching insects for their young.  I have been abroad for a week and, in that short time, things have changed again.  Tomorrow I shall go out and explore this new world.

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Nature Notes (water meadows, Stratton, West Dorset)

snail poem5.30am – flawless blue sky and the dawn chorus weaving a tapestry of sound over the silent village. I remember as a child being startled by the way the birds sang their hearts out early in the morning  – like children having fun with no adults around. Today, as soon as the kettle started singing, the dawn chorus subsided.

At the allotment, huge bulbous snails hiding under the carpet mulch, sliding off when the sun shines on their shells.

Walking past the water meadows – a black and white jigsaw of cows. Didn’t see the kingfisher, but several pairs of mallards sitting close together on the banks of the stream,– ying and yang.

Clear chalk-stream water – the occasional flash of a trout like a passing shadow

Along the lanes – sweet and sour smell of cow parsley and pungent wild garlic

So much white – small white downy feather on a leaf, white deadnettles, white cow parsley, white seeding heads of dandelion, white sheep and drifts of pale pussy willow on the path. White cloudy sky and tiny tight white buds of hawthorn.

Swifts swooping over the river where a miasma of gnats is hovering above the water. I sat on the bridge watching their fluid arcing flight – like an aerial ballet on an infinite stage.

At home, newly plastered nests of house martins cupped under the eaves.

Rain came as the sun set – I hope our wildflower seeds will show soon.Snails